Mexico is a contradictory country, a land of contrasts—cosmopolitan cities and tiny towns. The list of its beach getaways is legendary. But what I need is a quiet escape, not nightlife. I want to bathe in the palm fronds and sweet ocean breeze. I choose an Isla Holbox escape back in 2019.
Holbox (pronounced hole-BOSH) is located three hours north of Cancun. It has yet to be destroyed by the rampant development that threatens so many biologically-diverse environments. According to Trip Advisor, it is a hot spot for whale watching. You also don’t want to miss the opportunity to scuba dive in the Rivera Maya. There are so many things to do in Isla Holbox that seven days is not nearly enough time for my vacation.
Isla Holbox Escape
Isla Holbox is one of three islands that form a sapphire-jeweled Island necklace in the Yucatan Peninsula. It is car-free.
Unlike Cancun with its wall-to-wall highrise resorts, Isla Holbox is a two-story fringed beach hut type of getaway.
I arrive on a direct Southwest Airlines flight from BWI. It is a quick passage through customs. (We all have to turn over our luggage to be searched.) I have been warned to convert my U.S. “dolar” to Mexican peso as Isla Holbox only has two ATMs.
I hire the Holbox Transfer van to take me to the ferry in Chiquila for my Isla Holbox escape. The journey takes two hours. The ferry is a quick 20 minutes trip to Isla Holbox.
From the second the blue ferry leaves the dock, it kicks up sprays up of water. I move to a different seat just before a wave of water douses everyone. There is a loud scream of indignation. Our poodle passenger shakes himself in disgust. It turns out that he will be just one of many dogs that I will meet on the island.
Isla Holbox is a bioreserve that is home to over 150 species of birds. I hear their chatter from the second that I get off the ferry. After getting my luggage, I walk toward the street where multiple golf cart “taxis” wait for passengers. The mode of transportation is simple—golf cart, bike or foot. No asphalt either, just sand-packed roads.
The layout of Isla Holbox’s town center reminds me of a board game. I have a local hostel’s map that shows the intersection of main avenues and streets as well as the colorful array of numbered zones for coffee breakfast and restaurants. It is mandatory to do a tour of Holbox’s street art.
Since Isla Holbox is one of three islands in the Yucatan Peninsula, it resists the pull of modernity. I suspect a lot of multi-generation families still know each other’s children and grandkids (not to mention perros). The real world can only penetrate by way of the ferry. The buffer is a lagoon that separates Isla Holbox from the town of Chiquila.
Pelicans & Flamingos
The island is also the bewitching home of pelicans and flamingos. The juxtaposition of the sea glass green waters contrasted by the pink flamingos.
I do not see highrise (or even midrise) beach condos. Dolphins call these islands home. You can turn yourself into a gull and just float on a beach hammock.
The island architecture is defined by squat buildings with Mayan-style roofs. Palm fronds wave in the wind like matrons fanning themselves in the sultry summer. Asphalt is replaced by packed sandy roads (albeit with potholes and water puddles after the brief afternoon rain).
On Saturday night everyone spills into the street—families, tourists and dogs. Walking down Calle Tiburon Ballena, I meet at least six different dogs. They are very respectful. They look up to say hello but don’t jump on me or even bark. It seems like a great life to lead. I try to capture each pup’s portrait.
I also see loads of children as families promenade the main avenue. At the Centro (Town Center), there is a playground and a basketball court. The theatre is painted with murals documenting the island’s culture, flora and wildlife.
The island is close knit, just like the residents who live on the island of Burano, near Venice.
I have so many options for adventures on my Isla Holbox escape—kite surfing, horseback riding, moonlight kayaking and body surfing. There are also morning and evening yoga classes at the hostel.
But on the first morning when I awake on the island, I decide to walk the beach at sunrise. A pelican might crane his neck to observe me pick seashells. There is a small possibility that I could meet the whale dolphins that spend half a year vacationing in these waters but this usually happens between June and September when they swim offshore.
After my stop at the coffee shop for breakfast, I take the 10 am boat tour of the neighboring islands. I won’t be able to walk on Isla Pajaros (Bird Island), but I can climb the island’s three-story tower. From its heights, I can survey the exotic birds that nest here.
I see pelicans, cormorants, frigate-birds, white ibis, snowy egrets, double crested cormorants, reddish egrets, roseate spoonbills, white pelicans, gray pelicans, boat billed herons and the occasional wood stork. There are over 150 birds.
We also stop at Passion Isle. Our boat cannot go beyond the roped off area but we can see over 250 flamingos cavorting on the shore. It resembles a pink cloud that falls to the ground. My Isla Holbox escape is dreamlike.
While I love horses, they don’t normally put up with me. But I always try to book a horseback riding tour especially when I am staying at the beach. My experience riding my gorgeous brown horse along the back trails was a dream come true. Our guide provided lots of information on the vegetation and trees. We even had the opportunity to ride along the ocean at the end. Perfecto!
I rode during the morning before it was too hot. But there are also sunset horseback riding tours. The cost is very reasonable (USD $48).
Vendors operate “cart” restaurants where they sell dessert crepes, fried churros, tacos and helado (ice cream). Every restaurant advertises its Happy Hour deals (example – 2 for 100 pesos which is about USD $5). I also understand that the island is famous for two specialties: lobster a la diabla and lobster-topped pizza.
I met one afternoon with my new girl friends from Argentina and Mexico. We order takeout food from Panchos. The seafood is so fresh—octopus fried in garlic and hot chiles, spicy shrimp and lime-drenched ceviche. As a female solo traveler, I find it is so easy to make friends through the island tours.
Private Cooking Lesson
I also took a private cooking class on Isla Holbox with a chef. I come to Isla Holbox with a desire to learn how to cook an island dish. Isla Holbox is surrounded by pale green waters, so fish is plentiful. Only a decade ago, Holbox was primarily a fisherman’s Island—not a Mexican travel destination.
Eva, my amazing AirBnb host, circulates my request for a private cooking lesson. Chef Javier accepts the proposal for this class! He is the chef of Luuma, a very special place in the island. We will be cooking Diabla’s Prawns.
The price is MX$1600 (about $90) which includes materials. It will be the most expensive meal that I will eat during my entire stay at Isla Holbox but about the same cost as a Sur La Table cooking class in the United States.
Kayak at Night
BTW, I definitely plan to go on a kayaking tour on one moonless night. In fact, I learn you reach the limits of Isla Holbox by just a 15-minute bike ride from the town square. The hotel builders and developers haven’t wrapped their octopus tendrils around this nature lover’s paradise. Lay down on the sand and let your eye roam the cerulean sky that is pitched like a quilt. You will see it embroidered with the silver threads of the constellations.
I also will take a nighttime kayak tour on Tuesday night where our boat will glide through the black velvet night to float in the lagoon.
If it is a moon-free night, the plankton come out to play. These ocean fireflies (translated luciérnagas) are the fairies of Oceanus and they can bewitch with their water ballet.
Just like Isla Holbox is bewitching me (and all who gather to watch an island sunset).
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